When philosopher Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for pacificism, the prison warden asked him, “What do you do for a living then?” Russell answered. “I think.” “Well then,” asked the warden with some asperity, “do you think you could clean these toilets?”
The Talmud teaches that one should be “soft like a reed, and not hard like a cedar (Ta’anith 20a.). Medieval philosopher Bahya Ibn Pekuda comments on that passage, “Therefore the reed is privileged to be fashioned into a pen used for writing Torah scrolls.” It is surprising for those who think the Torah rigid and inflexible that even the implement used to shape its letters is chosen for flexibility.
The Talmud relates that God gave the Torah on Sinai because Sinai is a small mountain. It is intended to teach us humility; great things can come from unassuming places.
If this is true, asks a later sage, why not give the Torah in a valley? That would really teach humility! His answer is that for a valley to be humble is no great feat. The key is to be humble if you are a mountain. Thinking yourself worthless is not humility. To understand that you have gifts and blessings and yet remain modest is an achievement of character.
For junior year abroad I studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Enchanted with English poetry, I wrote a letter to my father telling of my love of Wordsworth, the romantic poets, the wonder and variety of English verse. My father, who was a devotee of literature and my first teacher, wrote back that he was glad I found inspiration and nourishment in them. But then he added something important.
In Annie Dillard’s book “For the Time Being,” she tells the story of a British district officer named James Taylor in highland New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea. In the 1930s, Taylor made contact with a mountain village perched at 3,000 feet above sea level, whose tribe had never seen a trace of the outside world. One day, on the airstrip hacked from the mountains near his village, one villager cut vines and lashed himself to the fuselage of Taylor’s airplane shortly before it took off.